Thursday, July 1, 2010

Farewell to the Boston Accent

When Boston was still revered as the “Athens of America,” a popular ditty spread about the capital of Massachusetts being “The home of the bean and the cod,/Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots/And the Cabots talk only to God.”
Times have changed since those halcyon days. In recent decades, if the Cabots, the Lowells, and the Deity were to converse, they’d staht talkin’ with the dropped ahz and gees that so cleahly mahk the Bostin accent. It is this more contemporary cadence, not the eloquence of Emerson or Amory, that has characterized the city.
Now that, too, is changing. In all walks of life in Boston, the accent seems to be slowly decreasing from the parlance of citizens. The wait staff at restaurants … people you meet while dog-walking … the folks at the laundromat. They talk just like regular Americans do.
This represents a dramatic change. In its 20th-century political past, Boston was characterized by the distinctive discourse of its prominent public officials such as the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. And indeed, visitors to Boston’s Logan International Airport will still be greeted by the equally memorable voice of Mayor Thomas M. “Mumbles” Menino on the public-address system. Yet the new political stars of the city are often eschewing the accent, such as Sen. Scott Brown, who won Kennedy’s old seat in a Senate surprise this year. While Brown has emphasized his working-class background, his rhetoric shows that he has toned down the accent.
Perhaps we’re now pronouncing our r’s and g’s out of sudden self-consciousness. The rest of the country has noticed the Boston accent, but its reaction has evolved. At first our fellow Americans thought it was cool, given the positive response to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in “Good Will Hunting” at the end of the past century. Now, it seems, our fellow Americans view it as over-the-top. Witness the marketing minds of MTV determined to recreate the success of “Jersey Shore” with a Boston version.
Maybe the disappearance of the accent is also related to the growth of immigrant communities in Massachusetts who do not absorb the townie inflections when learning English. Perhaps it’s connected to the college kids from out-of-state who stay in Boston after graduation and keep their Ivy League speaking style.
While I applaud and encourage the linguistic diversity Boston now enjoys, however, I can’t help but hope that the accent stays in some form or another. In a nation homogenized by chain stores and conglomerates, it would add insult to injury if all Americans started speaking the same, too. Accents are one way regions can preserve their uniqueness. May the Boston accent, even with a reduced usage, live long and prospah.

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